How Two Collectors Are Nurturing a Vibrant Art Scene in Jackson Hole
Exterior of the National Museum of Wildlife Art. Courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art.
At the Million Dollar Cowboy Bar in Jackson, Wyoming, a neon sign with a bucking bronco ushers you into the wood-paneled venue, where you can sit on a barstool with a saddle for a seat. Looking up from your beer, you’ll see taxidermied wildlife (a ram, a grizzly bear) and paintings of Western landscapes filled with armed men riding on horseback. Even the bar has antlers. Mingle by the dance floor or the billiards tables, and you’ll find yourself speaking to out-of-towners: The honky-tonk décor shoots straight at the hearts—and wallets—of tourists.
The destination watering hole offers a simultaneously illuminating and illusory glimpse of the town itself. Break down the bar’s name, and you get two of Jackson’s defining features: money and Western mythologizing. In 2019, single-family homes in the town cost, on average, $2.62 million. Winter sports enthusiasts from around the world help rake in over $83 million per year for the Jackson Hole ski resort. On the cultural front, Jackson’s wealth and frontiersman aesthetic create an unusual visual arts scene. Bringing challenging contemporary art to the city requires its very own DIY attitude—but not everyone believes that’s what Jackson needs.
Installation view of outdoor sculpture trail, National Museum of Wildlife Art. Courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art.
The only art museum in the area, the National Museum of Wildlife Art, features a collection stretching back to 2500 B.C.E., filled with sculptures of buffalo and paintings of elk. At the center of town, Jackson’s nonprofit Center for the Arts boasts a 78,000-square-foot campus comprising performing arts stages and rental spaces for cultural groups—but little room for artist studios or long-term, indoor exhibition spaces for visual art. Yet while Jackson’s predominant tourism is tied to skiers, snowboarders, and hot cocoa–sipping winter breakers, cultural offerings are growing to entertain both visitors and locals who seek more than slopes and natural beauty.
Like smoke and fire, a population that’s wealthy, philanthropically minded, and culturally engaged tends to suggest that a collecting scene for contemporary art is growing. A new fair, the Jackson Hole Fine Art Fair, launched just last year to try to tap into that scene. But in a city that loudly promotes cowboy bars and Western art, major collectors are remarkably quiet. This dynamic offers a significant contrast to that of the United States’s most famously art-friendly ski town: Around 450 miles south of Jackson, Aspen’s Shigeru Ban–designed contemporary art museum hosts the glitzy ArtCrush fundraiser every summer, which attracts big-name collectors and trustees.
Anna Tsouhlarakis, installation view of “Incomplete Drawings of Decolonization,” 2020. Courtesy of Guesthouse.
“Generally speaking, the people who may have interesting collections in Jackson Hole want to fly under the radar,” said Camille Obering, who works as a curator, advisor, and dealer in Jackson. She noted that local collectors have historically bought art depicting Western scenes and landscapes, and work by members of the Taos Society of Artists. That’s slowly changing, and she’s hoping to be part of that shift by mounting her own exhibitions, and offering entry and education to anyone intrigued enough to make an appointment at her space.
In 2019, Obering opened Guesthouse, a gallery with a small kitchen and a guest room. It functions as both an exhibition space and, as the name implies, a temporary residence. About a 10-minute drive from the center of town, the site is both intimate—on Obering’s property, just steps away from her own home, with a bedroom just beyond the art—and professional. It combines both the clean, minimalist aesthetics of a white-cube setting with incredible light and views. Floor-to-ceiling windows, separated by elegant wood paneling, comprise an entire wall of the gallery area. This past winter, they looked out onto glistening snowbanks, mountain peaks, tall bare trees, and the wide blue sky. The landscape itself seemed to be in conversation with the natural elements of the artwork on view: Anna Tsouhlarakis’s elegant assemblages of found wood and Ikea furniture remnants bound by sinew.
Ian James and Patricia Fernández, installation view of “Hand of Basajuan,” at Holiday Forever, 2020. Courtesy of Holiday Forever.
Ian James and Patricia Fernández, installation view of “Hand of Basajuan” at Holiday Forever, 2020. Courtesy of Holiday Forever.
As with many of the artists she’s helped exhibit, Obering has also purchased Tsouhlarakis’s work. “Most of the artwork in my collection represents a sentiment I have adopted, a period in my life, or a person that has had an impact on me,” she said. She owns a print by Michele Oka Doner, whose work she brought to Jackson’s Art Association in 2012. Her father’s first wife, painter Mary Obering, gifted her artwork on special occasions—her move to New York and her marriage. Obering has befriended the artist’s upstairs neighbor, Neil Jenney, whose work she also owns. Kiki Smith and Tara Donovan are in the collection, their works reminding Obering of “a personal period of growth,” she said.
Obering moved to Jackson in 2008 by way of New York, where she held jobs at Zingmagazine, Lincoln Center, the Whitney Museum, and RxArt for around seven years. The relocation was a kind of homecoming: Obering grew up in Jackson Hole, though she spent much of her adolescence in Connecticut, where she attended boarding school.
Since moving out West, she’s joined a small community devoted to contemporary art. Every year, she organizes a “full moon ski” with the artists Matthew Day Jackson, who spends part of the year at his nearby home, and Andy Kincaid, who runs the small local gallery Holiday Forever (which has shown work by Ivana Bašić, Diamond Stingily, Ian James, and Patricia Fernández). Artists fly in from around the country to cross-country ski in the moonlight. Obering, Jackson, and Kincaid’s event—like much of the contemporary art activity in the city—is a quiet, communal, and largely unpublicized affair.
Jean-Leon Gerome, Tiger Observing Cranes, c. 1890. Courtesy of National Museum of Wildlife Art.
Siera Hyte and Diamond Stingily, installation view of Trace 5 in “Where did she go?” at Holiday Forever, 2016. Courtesy of Holiday Forever.
Yet in 2017, Jackson Hole’s contemporary art triumvirate offered their services in a more public way, partnering with the Center for the Arts to mount installations by artists including Tsouhlarakis, Liz Magic Laser, Paul McCarthy, and Glenn Kaino. Since the show closed, Obering has not been involved with the Center, focusing on her own projects instead.
On the other hand, another local art collector and philanthropist, Agnes Bourne, has stayed involved at a high level since the Center’s inception (it opened in 2007), serving as a trustee. The designer, who’s also on the board of New York’s Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum, worked on the West Coast for decades before permanently relocating to Wyoming in 2000.
“Every piece of furniture, every piece of art in my house has a story,” said Bourne. In the 1980s, Bourne traded one of her own designs—a “Chevy” chair inspired by the palette and feel of her first car—for a painting titled Read (1984) by Squeak Carnwath. Raymond Saunders, who was a friend of one of her instructors at Mills College in the early 1970s, gifted Bourne one of his paintings (which was featured in the Whitney Annual). He “finished” it by adding Bourne’s initials to the composition and a piece of paper which had once featured a drawing of Bourne’s—until Saunders erased it and told her to “loosen up.” That advice, to rethink conventional creative wisdom, has stayed with her ever since.
Kiki Smith, Girl with Stars, 2004. Courtesy of Camille Obering.
A framed drawing of squiggles and straight lines hangs over a desk in one of the bedrooms at Bourne’s home, a gift from her friend John Cage. She met the late artist and avant-garde composer in 1980, when she traveled to a performance festival with him in Micronesia. Cage had worked as a dance instructor at Mills College, and his lasting connection to the school offered Bourne her entry into a lasting connection with him. “He liked to go get mushrooms and make delicious mushroom meals,” Bourne remembered. “We all said if we have to die at the hand of something, wouldn’t that be fun? The mushroom murders.”
Bourne’s home, in the middle of town, also serves as a meeting place and temporary residence for visiting artists affiliated with the Center—actors and directors with Thin Air Shakespeare, or dancers affiliated with Dancers’ Workshop, for example. Bourne also maintains a home outside of town, a more traditional ranch that she recently purchased.
If Bourne embraced her radical West Coast community when she lived in San Francisco, she’s become equally encouraging of the local Jackson community. She owns work by Ben Roth, an artist and designer who helps run a small exhibition space in town called West Weird. And in Bourne’s home outside town, she displays traditional landscapes by Kathryn Turner, as well as a bold, funky, thoroughly contemporary picture of a forest by Mike Piggott. Creativity and community seem more important to Bourne than promoting a particular aesthetic.
Out at Guesthouse, Obering isn’t proselytizing, either, but creating opportunities to engage with contemporary art for those who know about her space and seek it out. “Jackson Hole is filled with cerebral, curious people who pride themselves on independent thinking,” she said. “I think this bodes well in the effort to foster an interesting art community.”
Bourne offered another assessment of the long history and connection between Jackson and the visual arts. North of town in Grand Teton National Park, a few dozen miles past the Million Dollar Cowboy and other cozy tourist comforts, Mount Moran rises above Jackson Lake. Bourne noted that it’s named for the Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran, who’s known for his craggy landscapes. She asked, “How many places in the world can you think of that have named their natural beauties after artists?”